There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.
– John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men
Are Christians today concerned about religious freedom?
Yes, they are, according to a recent Barna survey, and that is a good thing.
In the last three years there has been a significant increase in the tension many Americans feel concerning religious freedom. Here are some observations based on the key findings of the study.
Concerns over Religious Freedom Have Grown across the Board
Concern about religious freedom in the U.S. has grown among every segment surveyed (evangelicals, other faiths, no faith) since the 2012 study, with an 8 percent rise (33 percent of respondents expressed concern over religious freedom in 2012, compared to 41 percent in the current survey).
The largest jump occurred among evangelicals, with more than three-quarters (77 percent) saying religious freedom in the U.S. has decreased in the last 10 years, up 17 percentage points (60 percent in 2012) just in the last three years.
Americans Remain Divided about the Causes and Future of Religious Freedom
Although there continues to be widespread agreement on the definition of religious freedom, with 9 out of 10 adults agreeing with the statement: “True religious freedom means all citizens must have freedom of conscience,” (90 percent in 2012 and 87 percent in 2015), there remains significant division among Americans on both the cause of religious freedom woes and the path forward.
Younger Generations are Growing Concerned about Religious Freedom
Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from the research is that younger generations are growing concerned about religious freedom. Millennial and Gen-X practicing Christians are the two generational segments showing the largest jump since 2012.
Millennials who say religious freedom in the U.S has grown worse in the last 10 years increased by 20 percentage points to 55 percent, while Gen-Xers in the same group increased 59 percent, a 19 percent increase.
Is This a Good Thing?
Yes, it is.
It is a good thing that more and more Christians are concerned about religious freedom in the U.S. The very idea of religious freedom is one of the most important gifts to the world from the American experiment.
Religious freedom was important to the founders because they knew we would begin losing our civil liberties without it. They believed religious freedom was a prerequisite condition ensuring our civil liberties, which is why it is in the first amendment.
On May 17th, 1776, only weeks for before signing the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon preached a sermon at Princeton entitled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. It caused a stir and was quickly published in Philadelphia and distributed throughout the colonies. It is estimated that well over half the colonists had read it within a month.
In Dominion, Witherspoon intertwines civil and religious rights, arguing that they are not independent. The fight for independence was necessary because liberties were at stake.
As he saw things, the American Revolution was a matter of “fighting for liberty and virtue”:
I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies, has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue.
Christians should be at the forefront of preserving religious freedom. If we are not, we may find both liberty and virtue in short supply.
Almost 65 years after Witherspoon preached Dominion, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following after a visit to the U.S.:
In America, it is religion which leads to enlightenment and the observance of divine laws which leads men to liberty.
May that be said of our country once again.